My Turn: The Last Frontier - not the past frontier

Posted: Friday, February 13, 2004

Every day we are thankful to be Alaskans. We have the most beautiful place to live in the world and the best neighbors. We are most proud of the Alaskan tradition of helping each other when times are tough. Think of the 1964 earthquake. Alaskans put the state back together by facing the challenge head-on and working side by side.

Today Alaska faces another challenge. It is a fiscal disaster and, like an earthquake, it will severely damage our schools, destroy our roads and transportation systems, hurt the economy, reduce the quality of life for many Alaskans, and threaten the safety of our people. Unlike an earthquake, we can prevent the disaster, but only if we act now.

A fiscal disaster begins very slowly. Every year more teachers are laid off, public infrastructure deteriorates, police and firefighters are laid off, assistance to seniors declines, more rural governments collapse, private sector businesses, concerned by the fiscal uncertainty, decide not to invest in Alaska, and so on.

Alaska's communities always have been the "sleeping giant" of Alaska politics. Now many large and small communities are in crisis and, according to surveys of local leaders, some communities face closure as a result of current budget cuts. They are losing money, population and hope. Facing state cuts, cost shifts and local economic downturns, many communities have no place to turn except burdensome increases in local taxes and/or deep cuts to basic local services like police, maintenance and schools.

Since 1994, the Alaska Conference of Mayors and Alaska Municipal League have annually proposed a long-range fiscal plan as a top priority for the Legislature, and offered suggestions and guidance. Recently the mayors sent a stronger "wake-up call" from the communities of Alaska to legislators who are not actively engaged in developing a solution.

We recognize that many legislators, past and present, have worked hard to "do the right thing" for Alaska's future. However, after 10 years the Legislature as a whole has not shown Alaskans how key public services such as roads, schools, public safety and fixing the state's backlog of deferred maintenance will continue at an adequate level after Alaska's financial reserves run out, without transferring the burden to local taxpayers.

What should we Alaskans do? The Alaska Municipal League and the Alaska Conference of Mayors urge Alaskans to listen with open minds to the recommendations of the Conference of Alaskans, including how Alaska manages and uses the massive earnings of the Permanent Fund and other potential solutions.

For example, the Permanent Fund was originally designed to help Alaska financially as oil revenue diminished. According to the Permanent Fund Corporation, the annual earnings alone can almost guarantee PFDs starting at $1,000 every year and growing over time, inflation-proofing the fund, and provide revenue for schools and local services. A "Community Dividend" proposed by former Governor Hickel could be a way to ensure continued local control of the Permanent Fund earnings. That doesn't mean the discussion ends with the Permanent Fund earnings, but it does mean Alaska has the tools and options necessary to ensure good schools, excellent transportation and utilities, adequate public safety, and public health for all Alaskans. We just need to put aside our differences and stand together again as Alaskans.

The leaders of Alaska's local governments stand ready to lock arms with the people of the state, the Legislature and the governor to avoid a fiscal disaster and make the great land we love even greater. We also recognize the need to shoulder our part of the responsibility by openly and clearly talking to citizens about Alaska's future, community by community. Alaskans also must hold the Legislature accountable for its success or failure to address this critical issue this year.

The Conference of Mayors and Alaska Municipal League fiscal plan recommendations are available at under "2004 Legislative Priorities" and "2004 Policy Statement and Resolutions."

• Jim Cooper is president of the Alaska Municipal League and the mayor of Palmer. Kathie Wasserman is president of the Alaska Conference of Mayors.

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